My Grandfather Crowder loved a good summer storm. He would sit on his screened-in porch, cigarette in hand, lost in the cacophony of thunder and rain, enveloped in an olfactory overload of decay and rebirth. Even as a child, I sensed these moments were too sacred to disturb. If my cousins were visiting, we would find another place to play. Otherwise the family stayed in the house, visiting with Nana until Pop emerged. It’s strange to me now we never pursued that mystery. Where did Pop go when the summer storms rolled in?
Born in 1922, Pop grew up in the small North Carolina town of Apex, now a suburb drowned by the growing “Research Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. I know very little of his childhood. There was a story he could never finish – as a boy, while looking for a good fishing spot, he walked up on a man drowning an unwanted litter of puppies. The trauma never left him. Occasionally he would hint at the poverty and deprivation of the Depression, but the depth of those remarks, such as “It was a special treat to have a Coca-Cola,” were lost on me. Mostly I remember the tall tales he passed down. There was no greater joy than the side-splitting giggles resulting from each retelling of the day so hot the corn popped in the fields, and the stupid mule, believing it to be snow, gave up all hope and froze to death. There was the older sister he adored, the mother he worshiped, the father who gave him his name, and the brother I never heard of until I was grown.
Pop didn’t really talk about the war either. He did show me the pictures once- his buddies, young, tan, impeccably fit, smiling and shirtless on a beautiful palm-lined beach – boots and dogtags. This was not Spring Break. There were insignia and medals tucked away in a box, and an old unloaded rifle hidden behind a dresser. Beyond that, my personal narrative of my grandfather’s participation in World War II was limited. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He answered the call. We won. He came home. He married my grandmother, and we all lived happily ever after. Like my grandfather, I learned to forget the ugliest things left in that box such as the one soldier posing with another dead boy’s ear. When Pop passed away in 1999, my family began to piece together as much of his experience as we could gather from the few letters home and what little he’d told Nan.
Pop’s decision to enlist in the army was spurred by a far more personal call to sacrifice, a decision whose implications for the women in my family I still feel today. Until the crash, my great-grandfather owned and managed a Savings and Loan. Unfortunately, there was no George Bailey to save the day. He not only lost his family’s money, he lost the savings and trust of his entire community. Yet somehow, despite extreme hardship for the family, he and my great-grandmother were still able to squirrel away enough money with the hopes of sending their oldest son to college. I can’t imagine how they must have felt when he refused their offer. He insisted his parents use the money to send his sister, Glen, instead. He knew, without an education, her options were far more limited than his would ever be. My great-grandfather is inexplicably absent (I never heard my grandfather speak of him,) and his brother was schizophrenic. My grandfather joined the army in 1940 believing it his duty to relieve his mother’s burden as sole provider for the family. He also wanted to ensure his sister the opportunity to lead a wholly different life.
My grandfather’s ability to consider “the larger picture” was one of his greatest gifts. It informed his immense generosity and sense of compassion. His children and grandchildren craved his advice before any major decision. I often wonder though, when he enlisted in that small peacetime army, did he have any real sense of what he was signing up for? He was a 19-year-old boy from a North Carolina farm town. He mailed every paycheck home, thanking his mother for the carton of cigarettes she often sent in return. His letters were cheerful. His concern was with those he left at home.
This handsome young man with his unwavering sense of duty and optimism returned from New Guinea six years later, his once dark hair gray and thinning, and his mind haunted by the experiences he tried to leave on an island in the South Pacific. After his death, the secrets he shared only with my grandmother were gradually revealed. They were bombed almost every night, and the Japanese military’s efforts to deprive him of sleep would continue to torture, invading his dreams for years. Ironically, his untreated PTSD saved his life. In the 1960s, his sleeping brain mistook a house fire for an attack, waking him up in time to escape. There were bottles around the house to numb what could not be silenced in sleep – another secret he hid remarkably well.
Pop was the epitome of the strong, silent type. Make no mistake, he was never cold. He always had a hug for his grandchildren, and when you made him proud you could ride that high for days. If you feared you might fail, his faith would help you persevere. “Keep ‘em flying,” he would tell us. It is difficult to believe this great man could suffer a wound from which he never fully recovered, but there were times when he could rest. He told my grandmother there were no air raids when it rained. When the summer storms rolled in, he could finally get some sleep.
No Veteran should have to keep Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a secret. Visit The National Center for PTSD to find help and resources for you or someone you love.